Pullen is Kansas State’s hair apparent

Wally Judge had neck surgery, Dominique Sutton gave up a starting spot to transfer to N.C. Central and, in the final hour, Kansas State learned it wouldn’t have to leave the Big 12 conference.

All newsworthy stories – but none matched the offseason buzz created by Jacob Pullen.

Jacob Pullen has shaved his famous beard as he prepares for his final season in Manhattan.
(Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Or rather, his beard.

“I shaved it, man,” Pullen said Wednesday. “It was time for a break.”

Pullen’s facial hair isn’t completely gone. The Wildcats guard said he merely trimmed the whiskers he’d been growing for the better part of a year. “Fear the Beard” became such a popular battle cry at Kansas State last season that the superstitious Pullen didn’t even think about dusting off his razor.

Throughout the Wildcats’ run to the Elite Eight and even most of the summer, the beard grew right along with Pullen’s popularity. Then, three weeks ago, the senior decided it was time for a change. His reason?

“It was hard to go any place without being noticed,” Pullen said. “I’d wear a hood but you could still see the beard hanging down. I wanted to get away from all the attention on campus and just be a normal student for awhile.

“With the beard, I couldn’t hide.”

Not that Pullen is complaining. Despite the occasional longing for anonymity, the All-Big 12 honoree understands that fame and notoriety are byproducts of hard work. And goodness knows, Pullen and the Wildcats are putting in plenty.

Less than year removed from one of the most successful seasons in school history – Kansas State finished 29-8 overall and tied for second in the Big 12 – Pullen believes he can lead his squad to even greater heights in 2010-11.

The concept is anything but far-fetched.

With all but one of their key players returning, the Wildcats have been picked as high as fifth in some preseason publications. One even has Frank Martin’s team advancing to the Final Four.

Most of the lofty expectations are because of Pullen, who’s being hailed as a potential All-American following a junior season in which he averaged 19.3 points.

The recognition couldn’t be more gratifying to Pullen, a Chicago native who never received as much praise as Derrick Rose, Evan Turner and other Windy City guards in his high school graduating class. And it wasn’t until last season that Pullen came into his own as a college player.

He said he can’t help but smile when he sees his picture on the cover of preseason magazines.

“I’ve been in a few gas stations and seen them,” said Pullen, laughing. “I might have bought one or two of them to read. I always like to see what people are saying about me. It’s different than the last few years, when [Kansas’] Sherron Collins was on the cover of all of them.

“It’s exciting. I’ve worked hard for this. This year is all about reaping what I’ve sown.”

Even though he’s proven himself against some of the country’s top competition, Pullen realizes that finding success on the court may be more difficult this season. The departure of point guard Denis Clemente has left a hole in the Wildcats’ backcourt that will be difficult to fill.

Not only did Clemente average 16.6 points and a team-high 4.2 assists, he was also one of the fastest players in the country – and the Wildcats’ emotional leader.

“He was such a passionate person,” Pullen said. “It’s going to be hard to replace that. Me and Denis had such good chemistry. We played together for three years. Even before he became eligible [in the fall of 2008] we were practicing together.”

With Clemente no longer on the floor, Pullen will assume more of the ballhandling duties this season. He said he’s expecting opponents to focus more of their defensive attention on stopping him.

“I’m sure I’ll see double teams and stuff like that,” Pullen said. “It’s all about being mature and understanding the game. You can’t force things. You’ve got to take what the defense gives you.

“Hopefully teams will fall asleep and somebody else will get hot and then I’ll have a chance to get hot.”

Sophomore Rodney McGruder will likely start alongside Pullen at shooting guard. McGruder averaged 12.9 minutes off the bench last season and shot 42 percent from 3-point range.

Frank Martin has watched Jacob Pullen grow into one of the nation's top players.
(Tim Umphrey / Getty Images)

“I don’t feel any pressure,” McGruder said. “I’m just going to keep my composure and go out there and have fun. It’s great playing in the backcourt with [Pullen]. He finds you and makes plays for you. He’ll make me a better player.”

Backup point guard Martavious Irving played in 33 games last year and should see meaningful minutes in the backcourt again along with sophomore Nick Russell and freshmen Shane Southwell, Will Spradling and Nino Williams.

“Whoever is on the court … you’ve got to have a partnership,” Pullen said. “You’ve got to know where the other person is at without them calling your name. You’ve got to have a feel for each other. That’s what the whole summer and the whole preseason is about.”

While the graduation of Clemente caused Kansas State to take a hit in the backcourt, the Wildcats’ frontcourt has the potential to be one of the best in the country. Curtis Kelly averaged 15 points as a junior, and Jamar Samuels should move into a starting role after winning the Big 12’s Sixth Man of the Year award.

Judge – the only McDonald’s All-American on the Wildcats’ roster – should be much improved following offseason neck surgery. And 6-foot-10 junior college transfer Freddy Aspirilla could make the biggest impact of any Kansas State newcomer.

Still, no one denies that Pullen is the Wildcats’ unquestioned leader. One of his main jobs, he said, is to make sure his teammates don’t get overwhelmed by the preseason hype.

“We’ve got to get young guys to understand that this [attention] didn’t just fall in our laps,” he said. “We worked to become a preseason nationally ranked team. We worked for the spotlight. It didn’t just come to us. We’ve got to maintain it.”

Martin couldn’t be more impressed with Pullen’s outlook.

“Jacob has grown so much since he’s been at Kansas State,” Martin said. “I think part of it is because he was able to be around Denis and compete against him and learn from him. He’s mature enough now to handle any responsibilities we throw at him.”

One of those “responsibilities” may involve Pullen’s appearance. While he’s enjoying the look and feel of his neatly trimmed beard, most folks around Manhattan aren’t sure what to think of his new look.

“I’ll go in restaurants,” Pullen said, “and people look at me with this shocked [expression] – like I just yelled for everyone to get down on the ground so I could rob the place.”

Pullen is certain his teammates and fans will ask that he put away the razor once the season begins in November.

“I’m sure Curtis and Jamar and the guys will get on me to grow it back out,” he said. “I guess I’ll have to do it.”

Might as well.

Beard or no beard, there is no more hiding for Jacob Pullen.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Sep 22, 2010